From That Johnny Depp Honor to Genre Films: 7 Takeaways From San Sebastian Film Festival

Last year, September’s San Sebastian worked a minor miracle, staging a safe on-site festival as second-wave COVID-19 built up in Spain. This year, on-site attendance will be up, though travel problems, caution and costs in Latin America, the U.S and Asia will prevent a full attendance.

That said, this year’s festival, running Sept. 17-25, will be firing on all cylinders — as a Spanish-language movie emporium, a new talent hub and launchpad for the local Basque industry. Following, seven takes on the most important film event in the Spanish-speaking world:

Star Power: Cruz, Banderas, Bardem, Depp, Cotillard, and Chastain?
Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas are expected for the Spanish premiere of “Official Competition” and Javier Bardem the world premiere of “The Good Boss.” Despite some opposition Johnny Depp will receive a career-achievement Donostia Award as, less controversially, will Marion Cotillard. Jessica Chastain, fest organizers hope, will attend for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the sole U.S. movie in main competition. Mobbed by huge crowds, stars love San Sebastian. Their 2021 presence will be select, but still potent.

Genre: The New Revolution
Following on Cannes winner “Titane,” “Earwig,” from Lucile Hadzihalilovic, another French femme genre auteur, weighs in as certainly one of the most anticipated titles at San Sebastian. Expect more wows from women horror directors later this year, says San Sebastian festival director José Luis Rebordinos. But there’s another revolution in the making. San Sebastian used to prime straight-arrow arthouse. Now, “Earwig” and “La Abuela,” a classic horror play, both screen in competition. China’s “Fire on the Plain,” another Golden Shell contender, is a thriller, as is “The Daughter,” out of competition. “It’s not so much that auteurs now want to make genre movies, rather that they want to tell stories and are using genre to achieve it,” Rebordinos says. Genre auteur movies look set to revolutionize Europe’s former arthouse scene.

Buzz Titles
There’s good word on two competition first features, both from women: Dane Tea Lindeburg’s “As in Heaven,” a female-centric coming-of-age period piece made with a modern eye; and Romanian Aline Grigore’s “Blue Moon,” a telling portrait of toxic masculinity — sexist, authoritarian, violent, self-pitying — in a shady modern-day hotelier clan. In New Directors, buzz titles take in Mar Pecio’s “That Weekend,” a mother-daughter drama with Western tinges; “Josephine,” from Spain’s Javier Marco, a prison-set romantic drama with a fantasy streak, starring “Julieta’s” Emma Suárez; and “The Rust,” from Colombia’s Juan Sebastián Mesa, a critique of the frailty and devastating fallout of rural economies.

Johnny Depp
When San Sebastian announced a Donostia Award for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star, it caused an international furor. Why prize a figure, critics asked, who lost a libel case against U.K. tabloid the Sun for calling him a wife beater? Depp has not been arrested, nor charged nor convicted of gender violence, San Sebastian retorted, reminding critics it had always fought “inequality.” It will now team with (H)emen, the Basque association of women in the audiovisual sector and scenic arts, to organize a festival workshop tackling gender equality and the Depp controversy. “A division was occurring between people and collectives who, in my opinion, share common objectives,” Rebordinos says. Expect more gender initiatives in the future.

Movistar Plus: Upping the Ante on Film and Television Series
A second hugely awaited San Sebastian title isn’t even a film, but rather six-part series “La Fortuna,” produced by Movistar Plus, AMC Studios and Mod, starring Stanley Tucci and “The Wire’s” Clarke Peters. It is the first TV series from “The Others” director Alejandro Amenábar. A good-humored adventure-thriller straddling the U.S. and Spain and past and present, “La Fortuna” is the biggest international co-production in Spanish history. “La Fortuna’s” San Sebastian world premiere comes weeks after Movistar Plus unveiled pic “Modelo 77,” from Alberto Rodríguez. The big question is now whether Movistar Plus will move into movie production with the same vigor it has shown with drama series.

Local Heroes: Spain’s Powerful San Sebastian Presence
Battling fears that a new subsidy system would obliterate domestic filmmaking, San Sebastian 2021 boasts the strongest Official Selection Spanish film presence in years: Seven titles, four in main competition, and “Official Competition” segueing straight from its Venice premiere.
But what’s really striking about this year’s Spanish film lineup is the films’ shared high production standards and their marked diversity, Rebordinos says. That’s seen in the competition contenders. A post-Basque conflict reconciliation drama, “Maixabel” from Iciar Bollaín, is “openly political,” he says. Fernando León de Aranoa’s “The Good Boss” weighs in as a workplace comedy, Paco Plaza’s “La Abuela” looks much more mainstream, but is a tale of nightmarish relatives. A fiction-doc hybrid, Jonas Trueba’s “Quien lo impide” extolls the vision and virtues of Madrid millennials.

Hot Ticket Projects
Launched in 2012, San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin America Co-
Production Forum has fast consolidated as the festival’s industry centerpiece, framing the latest projects from many of the hottest arthouse directors and producers in Latin America. This year is no exception: Hernán Musaluppi is backing “El Viento Que Arrasa,” from Argentina’s Paula Hernández (“Sleepwalkers”) and Chile’s Story Board and Sebastián Lelio Cristian Leighton’s “El Porvenir de la Mirada.” Brazil’s Desvia Produçoes is behind Johnny Ma’s “Chin-Gone,” “Alemania” is backed by Tarea Fina, and “La Sucesión” by Pasto and Gema Films. New Argentine Cinema icon Diego Dubcovsky produces Romina Paula’s “People by Night.” It’s a powerful lineup. Expect many of these titles, in a few years’ time, to be playing major festivals.

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